Studying at university involves a lot more independent (self) study than in secondary school. Learn more about how to adapt to this new type of learning.


University is very different from school; there are few contact hours and you are expected to take control of your learning. Becoming an independent learner is an invaluable skill for succeeding at University but also for later in life. It requires learning to manage your time, being self-disciplined and being proactive. It is important that you get a grip on this transition not only to do well in your course but also to prepare you for your working life.

Some students thrive on the freedom to direct their own learning. For the first time they can choose where, and on which topics, to focus on. However, other students can struggle to make the transition to this type of learning.

How could this affect me?

One of the main issues that students find hard is learning to organise their time. Some courses have a lot of timetabled hours per week while others have as little as 8 hours in some weeks. It is tempting to consider the ‘free-time’ as free time rather than time spent doing work. Although deadlines and exams may feel they are a long way off, you need to prepare for them throughout the year. It is not possible to cram everything a few weeks before the deadline.

The timings of the scheduled learning sessions can be spread across the whole week in isolated slots. It is tempting to not turn up to lectures or teaching sessions because there are no more activities scheduled in during that day. Missing teaching sessions can result in you missing important information about the coursework, lack of opportunities to ask questions and lesser understanding of important concepts.

Modules are moving too fast, and I do not have time to learn all the things I would like to. I am slow at reading and hearing and my memory is bad. The speed of completing assignments and note-taking is also slow, as I tend to be a very neat and precise writer. There is no time to properly read books on the subject.

Student, Anonymous

Tutors rarely chase you to do the work. It is up to you to keep up and seek help and support when you need it.

One of the most difficult things to learn is choosing what to study. Unlike secondary school there is no set of materials you have to learn. You can choose how much or how little you read. Obviously the more you read the better, but you need to know when to stop too.

Finally, sometimes you will have competing deadlines (e.g., several deadlines in a week or even a day). This requires very good advanced time planning. Managing deadlines and your time (when to do the shopping, laundry, study, read, go out) is key to success at University.

What to do next?

Prepare a detailed plan of how you will spend your non-contact time.

Practical tips

  • At the start of the term write down your deadlines and your timetabled sessions in your diary.
  • Break up big tasks into smaller tasks and write them in your diary with allocated time slots
  • Try to overestimate how much sub-tasks will take. You can use this spare time as a ‘buffer’ for unexpected tasks.
  • Do not forget to add study-free time to allow you to have breaks and a social life
  • Use gaps between your lectures and teaching sessions for independent study, it will free you up for the evening
  • Use non-contact hours to read, do group work, review lecture notes and handouts, see tutors to ask for clarification, go to academic skills workshops.
  • Some tutors provide a lot of reading, some just a few key readings. For those that provide long lists of reading, do not attempt to read everything! Tutors just give you a long list so you can choose which ones to read.
  • As a guide, you should spend roughly about 30 hours of the week on University work (including contact time)
  • Ask for help from your tutor or your disability mentor if you feel you are struggling. Do not wait!
  • It is tempting to study only the topics you like, but in order to progress you need to revise them all. Make sure you allocate time for all topics.

Questions to think about

  • What has helped in the past when I have had to do things on my own, without support?
  • What are the skills I already have regarding independent learning?
  • What aspects of independent learning may be problematic for me?
  • Where can I get support for the skills I need to develop?

Additional information and links

We've compiled information on how to manage your time as well as an independent learning information sheet in our study skills pages.

The University of Nottingham has some helpful videos on how to become an independent learner. 

Studying at your own pace, Callum | Autism toolkit

The transition to studying at your own pace from the perspective of an autistic student.

Read more

This toolkit is an adaptation of the Autism&Uni project led by Marc Fabri from Leeds Beckett University, under license CC BY 4.0. The original Autism&Uni project was funded with support from the European Commission with partners in the UK, Finland, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain. For more information about this project please visit the Autism&Uni website.